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The unfair test - Neurodiversity and Intersectionality

Neurodiversity and intersectionality: lost opportunities and goldfish?


A considerable number of people are still arriving in adulthood without a diagnosis or understanding of their neurodivergent traits (ASC, DCD, dyslexia, dysgraphia or other neurodivergent traits). There is often an assumption that people know what they need and know how to access it. The reality is not everyone has access to the support and insight that is needed to help them identify their neurodivergent traits. This is why I think it’s so important to consider neurodiversity and intersectionality.

Neurodiversity is all of us. Some individuals are neurodivergent and have traits including strengths and difficulties that are unique to them. Intersectionality is a framework that considers the social and political identity of an individual. When the two are combined it creates the potential for extreme advantage or disadvantage for the individual.

Neurodiversity is a term originally coined by Judy Singer in her bachelor thesis and later explored by Harvey Bloom who Singer corresponded with. When the term was originally introduced it described the autistic community, but since then it has become synonymous with a far broader range of thinking styles. The neurodiversity umbrella has now opened further to include many acquired conditions and medical diagnoses like migraines and PTSD to mention a few.

Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how a person’s social and political identity combines to create discrimination and privilege. This term was first conceptualised by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. The original work was looking at gender and race, but again this term has broadened out to include a much wider spectrum that includes underrepresented groups.

When we look through the lens of intersectionality, neurodivergent individuals can experience huge opportunities while others experience a perfect storm of disadvantages.

For example, a male from a middle-class family with supportive parents is more likely to receive support and opportunities to amplify his strengths and manage his difficulties than a female who has grown up in a deprived area and has a mixed cultural heritage. There are many biases in play including gender, race, language, criminality, and social-economic background. This can put the female mentioned above at a considerable disadvantage before she has even started the race. When we then lay on top neurodivergent conditions for example ASD (Autism), where much of the criteria for diagnosis have been developed around male behaviour and presentation, the female is considerably less likely to be diagnosed and as a result, receive support that would amplify her strengths and help her manage her difficulties.


The task before us is to ensure individuals have access to appropriate screening and diagnostic resources in order that they can be properly identified regardless of their social and economic background. In short we must consider their neurodiversity and intersectionality. This then needs to be followed up with appropriate support and guidance for individuals to understand their strengths and difficulties, allowing for the introduction of co-created interventions that help them be their most effective.

The government this week through Matt Hancock has proposed a blanket policy of screening every child of school age for dyslexia. Though at first, this seems like an excellent policy, what is important to consider is this is a screening of one neurodivergent set of traits. Based on research by Prof Amanda Kirby, co-occurrence of neurodivergent conditions is the norm rather than the exception. So, what will be missed? Is this just creating another silo with partial knowledge that doesn’t allow the individual to fully understand their neurodiversity?

Screening is just the start of the journey. Interventions and reasonable adjustments based on the whole person are essential to help individuals amplify their strengths and manage the things they find difficult.

Playing fields can seem level until you look at where the starting point is!

The challenge is not just to look at the individual as something to be fixed, but to also look to the organisational context that the individual is within. As with this illustration, a goldfish has many strengths, but climbing trees is not one of them, especially if the purpose of the assessment is to find out how well the candidates can swim!

Action on neurodiversity and intersectionality

As we look at how to be truly inclusive, organisations must look beyond the easy silos, considering people as a whole and making sure that we reach out to groups and individuals who have different intersectional backgrounds. We must look at this as a process of changing our organisations instead of fixing individuals to fit in.

As we embark on this process it is important that we engage in constructive dialogue and do not take shortcuts. Quick wins are okay but shortcuts are often detrimental to the overall aims of what we are trying to achieve. Look for evidence-based approaches like work-based strategy coaching that support individuals and teams to deal with their own issues so they can be their most effective at work.

These evidence-based approaches look at supporting the individual with the tools and strategies that are relevant for them to be most effective in the workplace. They also look beyond this and start to consider the organisation or environmental factors that impact the individual while critically reviewing their purpose and their fitness for use with the overall aim of creating workplaces that are better for everyone.

Many adjustments that are put in place to support neurodiversity are person-centric (changing the person, not the problem). Though important they do not address the environmental factors that cause disability. If there are no environmental changes then we run the danger of just putting a sticking plaster on the problem.

How to make neurodiversity and intersectionality work

We talked about insight, environment and impact. The reality is we are all looking for practical measures that can be used to make the neuroinclusive workplaces a reality.

So here are some suggestions on where to start:

  • Understand your colleagues, not just who you think they are, but who they really are. Take time to talk to them, listen to them, and get your head around where they are at.
  • Be compassionate and listen to hear what they’re saying, as opposed to listening to tell them what you think.
  • This is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself for a sustained effort as change is often painful, but the results are extremely worthwhile.
  • Actively seek out and recognise where there is discrimination or practices for disadvantage individuals or groups of people.
  • Record and measure where there are inequalities and start the process of deciding how you are going to measure and record the changes you want to see.
  • Be honest and be ready to own up to the mistakes you have already made and will make in the future.
  • This process is as much about building relationships as changing things.
  • Do not make neurodiversity the ‘charity of the year,’ this is an ongoing effort that needs to be ingrained within your organisation’s culture.
  • Do not be tokenistic, keep it real or it will be worth nothing.
  • Start with people and finish with people (with no campaigns in the middle).

Results to expect from neurodiversity and intersectionality

This all starts with positive power and neutral conversations built on trust. These will open dialogue that enables a more inclusive workplace that considers the intersectionality of the individuals involved. Let’s do this openly, while actively looking to engage others from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences, especially those in the groups identified experiencing a greater level of difficulty and or representation within your organisation and society (looking outside your organisation is also helpful).


What has been described here is a process that enables organisations to become more neuroinclusive especially to those with different intersectional backgrounds. As this is a process it has no endpoint, it is instead something that will constantly need to evolve and adapt based on the greatest resource organisations have – your people.


Original article published on FE News here.

Person on bike

Equity and neurodiversity – the right transport to get to the party

Auntie Anne had a problem: her favourite dog Jemima had fallen to the bottom of an old well at the far end of her property. She did not want the dog to stay down there and starve to death so she decided she would get a shovel and cover her up. It would be cruel, but it would not be as cruel as letting the dog starve to death at the bottom of that old well. So, Auntie Anne took a shovel of dirt and threw it into the deep well. Every time that shovel full of dirt hits the dog, she shook it off and stomped on it… shook it off and stomped on it… and it wasn’t long before the dog had shaken off enough dirt and stomped on it so that she was high enough to jump out of the well.

  • Equality is about giving everyone the same resources.

  • Equity is about distributing resources based on the need and choices of the recipients.

This is more than just supplying the same bus, bike, or tightrope for anyone to use.

See blog Equality and Neurodiversity.

Instead, it is about supplying proper transport for the individuals that have been invited. For neurodivergent individuals, this means thinking about the environment, tools supplied, and the way things are done. For example, it could be about creating quiet spaces or supplying assistive technology tools. The key is that places are created where people feel safe and equipped to perform.

Understanding the guidelines (or where the rope is) for your workplace and having it made clear is vital.

Equity is achieved through tools like universal design

Universal design is about creating environments, or in this case workspaces that can be accessed, understood, and used effectively by as many people as possible, regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.

Workplaces must be designed to meet the needs of the people who are going to use them. Not as pin-up spaces or beautiful designs that only help a minority of the population.

Good design is about making workspaces accessible, appropriate, convenient, and great fun to use so that everybody gets the most out of them. By considering the needs and abilities of all the potential users of a workspace, universal design offers us the ability to make truly great places to work.

Universal design for equity and neurodiversity

Case study 1

Microsoft has introduced tools including ‘Read Aloud, Dictate’ and ‘Editor’ into the Microsoft Office 365 suite. These tools are available in theory to everyone in the workplace using this platform. The key element here is choice in terms of how individuals use or don’t use them. They are available on-demand to be explored and played with as needed by the person that knows best.

Equity is not about the availability of the tools but education in terms of their existence and how to use them. Just because something is universally available does not mean individuals know it exists or how to use it.

Case study 2

Carly (this is not her real name), struggled with the way her home office chair felt as it constantly irritated her skin and made her feel uncomfortable when seated. This reduced her concentration and meant that she did not want to use the chair.

Some people who are neurodivergent can be very sensitive to materials and fabrics.

Equality would be to give Carly the same chair as everyone else and say that was fair. Equity is about having a conversation with Carly to find out if she would like to try out a few different chairs to establish which one doesn’t irritate her skin, or she may well have some better ideas based on her own experience and research. For example, she may want to be able to change the covers on the chair based on how she was feeling.

What next for equity and neurodiversity?

Our workplaces will never meet everyone’s needs completely considering equity is something that can be built on and added to.

The goal is excellence, not perfection because this is going to be a changing landscape where employers need to respond to the needs of their workforce appropriately.

See Blog Perfection vs Excellence mixed with neurodiversity.


The other lesson here is that if there is more than one choice it is always better to choose the more inclusive one. For example, it is worth considering whether everyone:

  • Can use it easily?
  • Can set it up?
  • Can share its benefits?
  • Finds it fun and engaging to use?
  • While not forgetting does it help make the organisation work better?

Final Thoughts

To achieve equality, equity must be a given I encourage you to think deeply and courageously about what this looks like in your organisation.

  • Sometimes these things are intentional
  • Sometimes they are accidents
  • Sometimes they are discovered
  • We must review and embrace what works and remove and reject what does not.

If you would like to explore this further, please get in contact.

And, if you liked this blog you may also want to read – Why aesthetics matter to neurodivergent people.


Why aesthetics matter to neurodivergent people

How does your workplace feel?

I remember walking into a large London charity for my first day at work after being interviewed in a beautiful glass-fronted office. My actual office was a complete mess of papers, out of date banners, marathon running kits, damaged chairs and what felt like total chaos. This destroyed how I felt about that place and as a result put me in a completely negative position about that workplace, breaking the mystique of what I had been expecting.

This was my first job out of corporate life where everything was pristine, and I had certain expectations about what the aesthetics of the workplace would be like. Reflecting on this I recognise that when I saw the office, I was going to be working in that I felt my personal value had been reduced and so had myself esteem.

When we talk about aesthetics in the workplace, we mean how our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch (plus our gut feeling) are influenced by our environment.

Here are some things that I think are important to consider that can help make workplaces more aesthetically pleasing:

Organised spaces

Though the very nature of work dictates there can be some untidiness from time-to-time, it can be incredibly distracting and sometimes tormenting if workspaces are not kept tidy periodically. For example, some individuals with dyslexic traits find having things in a mess often causes them stress and anxiety and takes the focus away from what they want to be doing.


Studies have shown the amount of natural light in an office has a direct impact on employee productivity attention and alertness. This is also true for many neurodivergent individuals as natural light helps the brain work better.

Variability in lighting

In addition to natural light, it is also important to be able to vary the amount of light in your working space. For example, task lighting is essential when working on detailed pieces of work. What is also useful is the ability to change the intensity of the lighting based on your mood and the type of activity you are undertaking. What can often be difficult to deal with is intense lighting that cannot be changed, think back to those classic 1970s offices with intense strip lighting – not great!


Materials are key in terms of things that don’t make you sweat or squeak when you move the seat. It is also important that seats work for the individual in terms of providing them support and avoidance of pain and long-term injuries. Changing seating position is also critical as studies have shown being able to stand up for example when performing certain tasks really enhances the quality of thinking in addition to movement.

Add plants that grow

Plants add life to the office, though they may not be everybody’s first choice they do also have some important health benefits, including giving you a focus away from your immediate work tasks. This can often create a much healthier and calmer work environment.


For some individuals, colour is incredibly important in terms of the impact it has on their social and mental well-being. For example, some extremely bright vibrant colours can cause migraines and other neurological responses in the workplace. When this becomes particularly tricky is when brand colours are very strong and the organisations that we are working in use these brand colours in particular areas. An example is a cafeteria in a large bread manufacturer that has strong brand colours used in this space, and as a result, an area designed for relaxation and recovery is now for some a high-stress environment.

Allowing personalisation

It is important individuals are allowed to make their workplaces their own, this can be achieved by having things that help motivate them and stay on task during their workday. This will often include items like family photos if appropriate, or other reminders and tools like whiteboards that they can use to help plan and deliver their day. For some individuals, this can also involve the use of fiddle toys that allow them to do other activities that do not inhibit their processing to stay focused on what they are doing. For example, some individuals with ADHD traits find it incredibly helpful to be able to doodle or fiddle with a piece of blue tack during conference calls and conversations as it helps them to stay focused on what is happening and not get distracted.

To open plan or not to open plan – that is a very big question

Many of us are not currently back in the office, when we do return this question is not going to go away.

When it comes to aesthetics, there is a lot to be said for open plan working in the benefits that it can give in terms of collaboration, but unfortunately for some neurodivergent individuals, it can often be incredibly distracting and debilitating. I would argue that this far outweighs any benefit that is potentially gained by the organisation by having a continuous open collaborative space. What I believe is a far better approach is to have zones within the work environment where it is possible to have collaboration when needed, but then an individual can retire to a quieter more personal space, and they do not need to collaborate in such an open way.

With aesthetics, choice matters

With all the senses constantly in play, updating us on the environment and giving us feedback on what is going on, for some individuals with neurodivergent conditions, this feedback can be heightened to the point of being uncomfortable. For example a chair fabric may make your skin feel spiky or a particular colour scheme may give you a headache or disorientate you. The position of your desk may expose you to excessive noise and distractions or make you feel that everyone is looking over your shoulder. I believe with simple changes and common sense thinking many of these issues can be avoided.

There is a perception that when you need to change the aesthetics of an office environment that there would need to be a huge financial investment, and this can put organisations off . I would argue that the biggest investment is talking to your people to understand their needs and preferences. I’m not suggesting for a minute you will be able to meet everyone’s individual unique preferences but as with all these things, there is a compromise to be had, as with sensible planning and thinking we can all make office environments better for everyone.

Here is to a neuroinclusive workplace!

If you would like to know more about how to make your workplace more neuroinclusive and how to implement these aesthetics changes effectively please get in contact.